Speaking exclusively to L’Équipe, PSG Sporting Director Antero Henrique said that he believes that his club was disadvantaged by the referee during the first leg of their round of 16 Champions’ League tie against Real Madrid (3-1 for Real Madrid). But he remains certain that, even without Neymar, the club has the quality necessary to qualify on Tuesday.
Very elegantly dressed in a white button-down shirt and a blue sweater from the club, Antéro Henrique answered our questions for 45 minutes in the Camp des Loges. In a joyful and laid back mood, and his heavy use of hand gestures, the Portuguese sporting director spoke about Neymar’s injury (right ankle sprain and fissure of his fifth metatarsal) and the second leg Champions’ League tie against Real, where he will be paying particular attention to the officiating.
He may not have had much to say on the Parisian project and the coach, Unai Emery’s, future, but he had some messages to send, three days before the second leg against Real Madrid. More than anything, he believes that the club can manage the feat of going through.
Did you think the sky was falling when Neymar injured himself?
Obviously, it isn’t positive. On the pitch, he’s the best player in the world, and helps us out fantastically. But Neymar also helps us off the pitch. Be it by his spirit, his relationship with the other players, the staff, the fans, the club’s entourage. Even if he won’t be able to play on Tuesday, we feel that Neymar is here. He has already sent plenty of messages of encouragement.
Will you have to learn to play without him?
(Cutting the journalist off) It’s not a very serious injury. It’s a normal football injury, he can still run. It’s not a nightmare. He’ll just be out for a certain period of time.
This comes at the wrong time; right before the crucial game against Real Madrid…
Obviously, we’d rather play with the best player in the world than without him. He’s not there, but at the same time, he is. That’s very important for me. Neymar is a team leader, but his teammates will also give it their all for him and for the club.
What does this match against Real mean for you?
It’s a game we’ve been waiting on. And not only for the entertainment. Everyone wanted this tie. We’re all very motivated: the fans, the team, the media. It’s an important event for PSG and for the city. Together, we’ll succeed. Not just the players, technical staff and fans. I want the whole world behind PSG. We launched a campaign for people to wear shirts and wave flags. It’s interesting to see the city’s ability to mobilise its citizens around the club.
The club is very divisive, is it a challenge to make the club more popular throughout France?
Today, PSG is France’s club. There is no other club with a similar standing. It’s normal to see fans liking other teams, but whenever there’s a team that represents France, like Monaco did last season by making the semi-finals of the Champions’ League, it’s almost like a national team. Today, we are a national team. We will need millions of fans. In the Parc des Princes, we can feel the energy, and the fans’ desire. I am very optimistic for Tuesday, the Parc will be full of energy. It will be an incredible experience for everyone.
Would an elimination be considered a failure considering the investments made last summer?
I want to talk about positive things. We are very motivated and united (to eliminate Real). That is our guiding principle. We know we played well in Madrid, and we showed our ability to compete with the best because we are amongst the best. If you were to ask if we have the qualities necessary to eliminate Real Madrid, then yes, we do. If you were to ask what’ll happen, then that depends on certain conditions.
Re-watch the match in Madrid. It wasn’t only about one team’s players versus another’s. There were external factors which influenced the true outcome of the match (alluding to the officiating) I don’t want to talk anymore about it, because I don’t want that to be used an excuse. But everyone felt it. In my opinion, there is disrespect towards Paris and towards France.
Some say, over the course of a season, that refereeing decisions balance out…
It wasn’t only this match. Last season, the same thing happened in Barcelona (6-1 defeat, marred by multiple unfavorable decisions). This brings about the questions: why does this happen? Why does it happen so often? Before the game, everyone was saying that it was going to be the game of the season. So we need one of the best referees available. We had a 44-year-old referee, who lacks experience (Italian referee M. Rocchi, first leg). Just take a look at his CV.
What has to be done in order to have greater influence?
We want exceptional officiating so that both teams can be exceptional. That’s all that we’re asking for. I ask myself if the referees are properly trained to work at the current level, which is very high. People talk about a lot of things, about our ability, but in the end, what makes the difference? I’m just making the observation that it’s happened to us twice.
Let’s come back to the initial question… is a quarter final qualification vital to validate everything that was done over the summer?
We can’t reason like this. We can say that, yes we want to win the Champions League, but that doesn’t really mean anything. The important thing is to give it your all every day and every match. Of course, the game against Real Madrid is very important. The champions league is important for everyone. But it isn’t the end of the world. It’s a game like any other, and there will be many more in our history.
Does Neymar’s injury ruin what you’ve accomplished this season? To what extent does this change things for PSG?
With Neymar, we are at a different level. Players like Neymar, Mbappé, Verratti, Cavani, lift the club, but also lift the league. I prefer having Neymar at PSG in France. If all the stars were in the same league, it would be unfair for the other ones.
You’ve spoken about his contribution on the pitch. But hasn’t the global perspective on PSG changed since Neymar’s arrival?
I focus on the sporting aspect because that’s the central question. But Neymar, is an incredible brand, and so is the rest that goes with it. If Neymar came to PSG, that means that PSG has a level worthy of Neymar’s (stature). It means the project is likely to attract the best players, which means there is certainty in our ability to reach the top level.
His arrival also validates QSI’s strategy in Paris.
Neymar is important, but if you look at the team, you notice that there are other players at the forefront. The team’s level is extremely high. So far, we’ve managed a magnificent season. The president’s (Nasser al-Khelaifi) priority is to bring forward the club and and its brand around the world, as a leading sports brand. For that, we need the best.
Do you believe that PSG is currently amongst the best?
Yes. I don’t have data showing specifically that, but I feel that we’re up there. And I don’t want us to stop.
The episode around Neymar’s injury gave the impression that he decides on everything. Considering how important he is, would you say he’s above PSG?
(Firmly) No, not at all. PSG [as an institution] is above all players and owners. We are all on the same page. The responsibilities are different, but there is no hierarchy in football. Neymar is a player like anyone else.
It’s hard to believe you.
He’s obviously a leader on the pitch, but players who have been here for five or six years are also very important, they are examples for the youngsters. Players like Rabiot, Kimpembe, Areola are very important. To come back to Neymar’s injury, we all spoke together with the PSG and Seleçao doctors, his family etc. Sometimes, you can’t agree on everything. But now, the most important thing is his health.
That’s why we took this decision. We want the best for our players, and not only for Neymar. When it’s about one’s health, there’s more than the professional side of things, there’s also the personal and emotional aspect. That’s why his family, and loved ones are very important.
The club’s PR is sometimes confusing. What happened between Wednesday at 1:45 pm, when Unai Emery said, “There’s a slight chance that Neymar could play for Real,” and that same evening, when his father said, “he will require surgery?”
Our first discussion was to wait three days to see how things evolved. After that period, we took the decision to operate him, nothing more. The doctors’ opinion, as well as Neymar’s, are important. There was no debate to be had. These aren’t major injuries, but they remain sensitive ones to deal with.
There is a lot speculation around Neymar’s future and the way that he felt in Paris…
Ask him! (Smiling) I understand very well why this debate is coming up now. The Spanish are not like the French; they are against PSG. For them, from this point onward, they are adversaries. Spanish journalists asked people who believe that Neymar isn’t happy… Well did you ask Cristiano Ronaldo if he is happy in Madrid?
It’s a bit difficult to get in touch with him…
(With tongue in cheek) Well that didn’t stop the Spaniards from talking about Neymar! Obviously Neymar will stay in Paris next season. His father said it two or three days ago: he’s happy in Paris. His objective is to stay. He’s here for that, to play and score goals.
Can a player like that be kept at a club, in spite of what he may he want?
That’s not the question. We need good people. But it’s the same with all players. Getting whistled (against Dijon for not letting Cavani take a penalty)? That’s happened once. Besides that, the PSG fans are always behind us.
There were quite a few blunders in PSG’s PR (penalty-gate between Cavani and Neymar, Cavani and Pastore’s delayed Christmas vacation). Why was so little said by the PSG board?
PR, in football, is for players and coaches. That’s my opinion. If we need to talk about it, then we do. But we won’t respond to rumours. We speak when it’s important to do so. Do owners in England do that? They speak to defend their rights and interests, in meetings, not in the press. And if I need to speak to work, then it’s no problem.
In regards to off the pitch cases, like the Penaltygate, could you have intervened a bit more?
For me, if two, three or five players want to take a penalty, then that’s great. I’d rather that than see them turn away from it. That means there’s the desire to do so. It’s like when there are two people for one chair, and one person has to stand. That’s what competition is like.
Are you worried by financial fair play? Would an elimination on Tuesday be detrimental?
No not at all. Financial fair play is a rule, but we are calm in regards to that. It’s more of an external matter, rather than an internal one. We’re in March, and we have till the end of June. There are no worries.
You sold Lucas to Tottenham during the winter transfer window, did that generate enough?
Yes, for €28m. But it’s not just a matter of selling players. Today, the club is at an extraordinary level. The commercial side of things generates lots of revenue. The club is at another level, and is on the way up. Everything is organized. We will have met the requirements by June 30th.
Unai Emery’s contract runs out in June. Could his future depend on the result of the match against Real Madrid?
That’s not a topic to be discussed now. We have both decided to talk about it at the end of the season.
What if he were to sign elsewhere?
He has a lot of love for Paris. (smiling) We’ll talk about it.